The Balangiga gambit

The United States Congress starts an investigation of alleged human rights violations committed by the Duterte administration. President Rodrigo Duterte sees the Americans and raises them, demanding that the most controversial spoils of the Fil-American war, the Balangiga Bells, be returned to the Philippines.

Duterte has always had unresolved issues against the US, issues that have been traced to his anger about a suspected bomber and Central Intelligence Agency spy who was spirited out of Davao City right under Duterte’s pore-riddled nose when he was mayor years ago. Last September, very early in his term as President, Duterte signaled his intentions to the US that he was no American lackey by going back to the Bud Dajo massacre in Basilan province in 1906.

At the time, Duterte was making the point that US troops stationed in Mindanao should go home. He pointed out that the US had never apologized for killing 600 Moros “like fish in a barrel” inside an extinct volcano’s crater during the Americans’ infamous “pacification campaign” on the southern island.

A friend has informed me that as early as last February, Duterte was already discussing the Balangiga Massacre of 1901 with a group of bloggers who visited him in Malacañan Palace. But Duterte only brought up the missing bells of Balangiga, Eastern Samar, during last Monday’s State of the Nation Address, apparently because he believed it was time to remind the Americans of the atrocities they themselves committed in the Philippines more than a century ago.

The three bells of Balangiga Church last rang to signal an attack by rebels in Samar on an American camp, which they were able to approach because the Filipinos were wearing women’s clothing and kept weapons inside a coffin they were purportedly bringing to the local cemetery. Forty-eight American soldiers were killed in the guerrilla attack, which prompted a retaliatory bloodbath by US troops under General Jacob “Howling Jake” Smith, whose men killed upwards of 50,000 Samarenos; the bells were seized as trophies of war by the murderous Americans, who have kept them ever since.

No Philippine president has directly demanded that the US return the bells, which is a reflection of our previous leaders’ collaboration with the Americans in the conspiracy of silence about US atrocities here. The last Filipino president to ask that the bells be brought back (through discreet diplomatic channels, of course) was Fidel Ramos—whose efforts were promptly rebuffed by the American military.

No one really believes that the Americans will let go of their war booty from Samar, which is why Duterte’s callout appears, on the surface, truly puzzling. Unless, of course, what Duterte really wanted to do was to remind the US Congress that they cannot talk to him about human rights when they respected none of these when they occupied the Philippines.

If Duterte wanted the Tom Lantos Commission, a human rights body attached to the US Congress, to go slow on its investigation, I think he made the right move. Not bad for a country bumpkin from Davao whom most self-styled pundits and analysts in Manila have written off as a naive and crude political strategist.

You may not like Duterte, but you have to admire his audacity. I’ve never seen any Philippine president who would go to the daring lengths that Duterte has to expose the hypocrisy of the Americans—and that makes me extremely proud.

* * *

In the end, sanity prevailed. In what was probably the only possible resolution to a long-running and totally unnecessary conflict, the House of Representatives finally released the so-called “Ilocos Six,” as the half-dozen provincial officials jailed for nearly two months by Congress were called.

House Majority Leader and Ilocos Norte Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas, who was behind the unwarranted and illegal detention of the six local officials, said he was glad that the local executives “regained their memory” and decided to finally answer questions about the alleged irregularities attending the disbursement of tobacco excise taxes by the province. Gov. Imee Marcos, who was the real target of Fariñas’ investigation, also appeared before the committee headed by Rep. Johnny Pimentel, who acted as Fariñas’ surrogate and errand boy.

The release of the six from arbitrary and unlawful detention ended what was clearly an attempt to escalate a local political conflict to the national level by Fariñas and his senior partner, House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez. At one point, the Fariñas-Alvarez combine appeared ready to spark a constitutional crisis when they defied a Court of Appeals order to release the six officials because they wanted Marcos to bow down to them.

And all of this could have been avoided if Fariñas had only refrained from misusing his powers as House leader to ensure that the Marcoses would not grab his soon-to-be-vacated Congress seat, which he wanted for his daughter. The Ilocos Six were just pawns in Fariñas’ nasty power play.

But, as The Game of Thrones reminds us, the North remembers. And Fariñas, because of his arrogance, may have sealed his political doom by pulling off this incredibly stupid political stunt.

Topics: Jojo Robles , The Balangiga gambit , United States Congress , human rights , President Rodrigo Duterte , Fil-American war , Balangiga Bells
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